Monthly Archives: June 2011

360 Throw it All Away

Music video by Alex Ryan. On his facebook page, he says to watch out for the director’s cut, but I quite like this version, especially my tiny appearances, as at 2:10:

And there’s a ‘making of’ video as well:

Talking about looking at painting about bombing Guernica

In my 20s, on my first trip overseas, Picasso’s Guernica and I happened to be in New York at the same time. It had a room to itself in the Museum of Modern Art. I wandered in and admired it with pretty much the same undifferentiated awe as I’d brought to pretty much everything else in MOMA. I suppose I was suffering a kind of low-grade colonial Stendhalism (you know, the condition where visitors to Florence grow faint from exposure  to too much beauty). The only other person in the room, a young man about my own age, spoke: ‘I’ve been wanting to see this all my life. Isn’t it amazing?’ I thought he was some kind of weirdo, either that or an art student.

I saw Guernica again in Madrid five years ago, this time in the context of a major Picasso exhibition, and, having read Alice Miller’s essay on Picasso in The Untouched Key, I saw it a little better.

Last night the Art Student and I caught a bus to town to hear a Sydney Ideas talk by Professor Timothy J Clark, art historian from the University of York in England: ‘Looking again at Picasso’s Guernica’. I came away feeling that when it comes to looking at something like this painting, I’m not much better than a day old kitten.

As the fast-talking professor who introduced the speaker said, we mostly hear Picasso spoken of in connection with erotic adventures and high auction prices. CJ Clark’s interest lies elsewhere. Guernica, he said, is a history painting, already an anachronism when it was painted in 1937, but a history painting that refuses to die: it crops up again and again in anti-war demonstrations. A tapestry at the United Nations building was covered with black felt at the insistence of Colin Powell when the US was bombing civilians somewhere. How to account for its enduring power?

His stab at answering this question took focused on Picasso’s relationship to space. Picasso for him, he said, ‘is a history painter’, and the main history he painted was ‘the end of room space’, that is the traditional subject of paintings – a space built for human habitation, with a roof, walls, furniture and perhaps a window looking out onto external space. That subject would seem to be a long way from Franco’s bombing of the historic Basque town of Guernica. Yet, as far as I could understand the argument, CJ Clarke was saying that the struggle to resolve issues of space – both room space and public space – is at the heart of the painting’s success. The painting was completed in five weeks from its inception, and Picasso spent just 26 days working on the canvas. His ‘muse and lover’ (Wikipedia’s description) Dora Maar took a series of photographs of the work in progress, of which Clarke used slides to take us through his argument: we looked at the way classic motifs were introduced and then obscured, at the importance of the sheer scale of the painting, at the role of geometry, etc etc. We didn’t touch on Alice Miller’s key (she locates the painting’s emotional force in its connection to major childhood trauma) and the erotics of the painting, we were told in an aside, is a story yet to be told.  That is to say, a lot was said about the painting, but there is so many more important things that can be said from so many other valid perspectives, so much more to be discovered in this one painting.

Such close looking may be commonplace for art students – for me it was breathtakingly interesting. I couldn’t see how, or even if, the discussion actually went any way towards explaining the painting’s enduring power, but I’ll leave that to people with better equipped eyes to answer.

Clarke’s next book is Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica. I expect it will be a good read.

Why Bronwyn Bancroft Loves Australia

Bronwyn Bancroft, Why I Love Australia (Little Hare 2010)

I was given an iTunes voucher for my birthday on the understanding that I would use it to buy book. It’s taken a couple of months and a system upgrade, but I’ve bought this one. And of course now I want a dead-trees copy. It’s on the short list for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, and a good thing too. If like me you feel ever so slightly squeamish when you watch those Qantas ads, ‘I still call Australia home’, this is a marvellous antidote – a brilliant, bold, spectacularly beautiful acknowledgement of country.


Fireflies in the Inner West Courier

That‘s my son, one of ‘three inner west designers’:

In a fig tree in Circular Quay there are 48 mechanical fireflies ready and waiting to dance with you.

Each firefly has a brain, which is a circuit board, and an energy efficient LED light in their tail.

Quarterly Essay on the country and the city

Judith Brett, Fair Share: Country and city in Australia (Quarterly Essay 42)

Judith Brett has an admirable capacity for seeing beyond the surface of ugly or bizarre utterances to the valid concerns or at least genuine pain that has given rise to them. In this essay, for example, she resists (or perhaps doesn’t even feel) the pull to mock or repudiate Bob Katter’s extreme language when he’s arguing for his constituency. And she doesn’t indulge in the city dweller’s revulsion from book-burning when she discusses the farmers who burned copies of the Murray–Darling Basin Authority’s draft plan last year – no snide comment about people who condemn and burn documents they haven’t had time to read.  That is to say, she side-steps the kind of point-scoring that tends to pass for debate in the press these days. Instead, she addresses her subject seriously and respectfully. Even as she argues that ‘economic rationalism’ brought havoc to rural Australia, charts the rise and fall of the Country/National Party, or notes the impact of Pauline Hanson, she avoids cheap shots.

It’s an excellent, thoughtful essay. This paragraph comes close to encapsulating its argument :

City and country in Australia share a history, a long history both of interdependence and of watchful suspicion. The understanding of that interdependence was strong in the first two centuries of Australia’s European settlement, and the attempt to build a vibrant and self-sustaining countryside was a major political preoccupation. The country made claims on the city for support, and by and large the city attempted to meet them as part of a compact in which Australians shared the cost of living in a big country. This understanding has waned rapidly since the neoliberal 1980s. Since then the country has seemed to be in a perpetual state of crisis: dying towns, depressed and ageing farmers, unproductive farms carrying too much debt, environmentally unsustainable irrigation schemes, droughts and flooding rains, crisis-ridden marketing schemes like the wool stockpile and the Australian Wheat Board, and so on. The picture is of irreversible decline. Yet, as Tony Windsor reminds us, over 30 per cent of Australians live outside the big cities. What is their role in the nation? And what are we to do with all that land beyond the ranges and the thinly settled coastal strip?

My two cents worth: read it – you’ll see the world a little better!

As usual, this Quarterly Essay includes correspondence about the previous issue. The contributors here are all but unanimous in their appreciation of David Malouf’s The Happy Life, calling it variously ‘beguiling’, ‘characteristically delicate’, ‘elegant and humane’, ‘thoughtful and courteous’. They are also all but unanimous in finding that he didn’t say anything definitive about happiness. A Russian scholar argues that his reading of A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is simplistic an uninformed. A psychiatrist invokes the academic literature about happiness. Several others push their respective barrows with varying degrees of elegance and insight.

David Malouf does not rejoin the conversation. I read his silence as signifying that he’s perfectly happy for other people to have their say, to correct him where needed, to have their own crack at the subject. After all his piece differed from most Quarterly Essays by being in the tradition of the essay as a crack at a subject rather than a tightly argued thesis. Sometimes the appropriate response to an essay is not to argue with it. Maybe Marieke Hardy got it right on the First Tuesday Book Club last night. She said she felt as she was reading The Happy Life that she was sitting on David Malouf’s lap resting her cheeks on his bald head and letting him read to her.

Jim Shepard’s Like You’d Understand, Anyway

Jim Shepard, Like You’d Understand, Anyway ( 2007)

A friend told me about this in an email, describing it as short stories soaked in historical research, and mentioning that one of the stories is a set of fictitious journals kept by Charles Sturt. I trekked to the library the same day.

Most of the book’s eleven short stories evoke historical moments: Chernobyl in April 1986, Hadrian’s Wall in ancient times, a Nazi-sponsored quest for evidence of the yeti, Sturt’s exploration of the south Australian desert, a Russian space launch, the Battle of Marathon, and the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. These historical events aren’t there as background to the stories, they are the stories, reimagined from the point of view of key participants. For instance, the Reign of Terror story, ‘Sans Farine‘, is narrated by Charles-Henri Sanson, the royal executioner before the revolution who was kept on in the job to become the man in charge of the guillotine. The real Sanson has a Wikipedia entry, which confirms that Shepard’s story stays close to the known facts. But Shepard doesn’t give us some kind of pedagogical re-enactment – this story in particular takes us to a poignant human reality. The horrors of capital punishment before and after the revolution are graphically presented, and Shepard avoids what might seem another obvious temptation, to editorialise on the evils of state murder. His concern is with the experience of the man, and with coming to imaginative grips with historical events.

Eons ago, on the way to an MA thesis that never eventuated, I read Sturt’s published journals, as well as those of Leichhardt, Eyre, Mitchell, George Grey and Ernest Giles. My thesis would have argued, of Eyre’s Journals in particular, that these books were literary compositions and should be much more widely read. Novelists and poets including Patrick White and Francis Webb, have drawn on the various Journals, and there is at least one anthology of excerpts. Shepard’s ‘The First South Central Australian Expedition’ captures the feel of the original. It does something else as well, as the fictional diarist Sturt is much more forthcoming about his emotional life than the real one was, at least in published form, but Sturt is much more a presence in the story than a jumping off point.

The book is dedicated to the author’s brother, and it includes plenty of brothers and brotherly relationships. Probably the single thing that stops the historical pieces from feeling didactic or info-dump-ish is the overarching preoccupation with relationships between men. Even the one story with a female narrator is set in the predominantly male milieu of the Russian space program, and the relationship between the two main female characters has the kind of competition traditionally found between men. The nerdy scribe overwhelmed by barbarians in ‘Hadrian’s Wall’ has a lot in common with the skinny twelve-year-old who manages to survive the bullying at summer camp in ‘Courtesy for Beginners’. The team sport in ‘Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak’ (surely a science fictional take on American Football rather than a realistic account!) is as brutalising in its way as the work of the executioner in ‘Sans Farine’. Fathers ache for their sons, sons for their fathers. Sons die. Fathers die. Brothers die. Occasionally there’s a woman, but she’s not let in easily. Like she’d understand, anyway.

Adam Aitken’s Tonto’s Revenge

Adam Aitken, Tonto’s Revenge (Tinfish Press 2011)

Tinfish Press is a small Hawai’ian publishing house run by Susan M Schultz, the poet who wrote Dementia Blog. It publishes poetry in the Tinfish journal, in books and in chapbooks. Even if Adam Aitken hadn’t been Distinguished Visiting Writer at the University of Hawai’i–Mānoa in 2010,  would have been a natural fit for Tinfish. He wrote recently on his blog:

I have spent my whole career as a writer trying to critique and understand a cross-cultural poetics and [my] multicultural cultural capital.

Almost like call and response, the Tinfish website says:

We publish work from the Pacific region, concentrating on language issues, colonialism, Buddhism, place, and poetic form. Above all, we seek to create alliances between writers whose work crosses national and aesthetic borders.

Tonto’s Revenge is the second title in the Tinfish Retro Series, which will comprise 12 chapbooks, $3 USD each or $36 for the set, available from (You can read Susan Schultz’s blog entry on this book here.)

I enjoyed the book’s twelve poems very much. Most of them are responses to Hawai’i: conversations on TheBus (not a typo), an encounter with a homeless woman, an elegy for the actor who played Danno in Hawai’i Five-O, a meditation on a major shopping precinct. Five monologues by ‘The Sheriff’ are less Hawai’i specific, but they too relate to encounters with the US more broadly. For example, ‘The Sheriff as Recidivist’ which gives the book its title, plays with a particularly US flavour of political correctness, in which certain words have been declared ‘bad’:

I know I can't call him that, my dusky Injun,
but I does.
Now that Tumbleweed U's banned the term
now that it's banned
it's even sexier.

Here, as elsewhere, the play turns serious in a surprising way, but you’ll have to read the poem to find out how.  There’s a lot of playfulness in the book as a whole – playful puns, play with syntax, play with paradox – and a lot of affection.

Since this is a blog entry and not a review, here begin a couple of paragraphs on a very minor matter:

As is pretty inevitable these days, when we can never assume a common set of references between a poet and any given reader, there are plenty of obscurities. For example, in ‘Ala Moana’, the piece on the shopping precinct, which to my mind is the most interesting poem in the book, the narrator has been meditating on nostalgia:

So I want to write 747 poems
and not worry. Whose home is it?
Whose nostalgia?

Presumably he doesn’t mean he want to write seven hundred and forty-seven poems. Is he looking forward to the time when we will be nostalgic for 747s?  Perhaps he is stating an ambition to write big poems that will carry many people to new places. This morning, re-reading the poem while walking the dog, I stumbled on this line, and moved on – as you do. Just now, checking to see if Adam had uploaded the poem to his blog as he has some of the others, I read this: ‘I feel deeply complicit in a kind of poetic tourism, where I am always unmoored, or detached from a deep sense of belonging to a place. Susan Schultz calls this the “747” poem, a poem of shallow impressions, a sketch.’

Ahh! (And since I wrote that last sentence, I’ve googled ‘747 poems’ and found lots of references: it’s not a deliberate obscurity.)

Added later: Susan Schultz has added a clarification in the comments.

Beyond White Guilt at Gleebooks

Last night we cashed in a couple of our Gleeclub vouchers to hear Sarah Maddison in conversation with Jeff McMullen about the former’s new book, Beyond White Guilt. A couple of years ago, Sarah’s Black Politics drew on interviews with 30 Aboriginal leaders to give a kind of map of Aboriginal politics (the link is to my blog entry, which outlines some of salient points on the map). This book could be seen as a sequel, looking at non-Indigenous Australians.

A quick look at Wikipedia’s entry on Jeff McMullen shows him to be an eminently qualified whitefella to converse on this subject. He kicked off the conversation with two lists: on the one hand, invasion, dispossession, genocide, stealing children, and on the other denial, loss of memory and guilt. ‘We struggle in Australia,’ he said at one stage, ‘to have an honest and direct conversation [about the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians].’ This conversation was refreshingly free of indirection or quibble. I won’t try to summarise, but can offer a couple of notes.

Asked why she chose to focus on guilt, which is after all often a useless, self-punishing emotion, Sarah Maddison cited Bernhard Schlink’s Guilt About the Past which argues in the German context that every generation that doesn’t make a substantive break with the atrocities of its forebears is standing in solidarity with them. Her book doesn’t advocate that non-Indigenous Australians should wallow in guilt forevermore, but that we should ‘sit with’ our guilt for a time, not run from it either by taking action or by denial. Facing that discomfort is a necessary step to understanding and making thoughtful progress. [I liked this. I know a Native American woman who urges non-Indigenous people to put our minds to answering the question, ‘How have I personally benefited from genocide?’]

She talked about ‘high-identifiers’ – people for whom it is extremely difficult to acknowledge any negative dimensions to their national identity. Such people tend to think that the continuing disadvantage of Aboriginal people must be their fault, specifically must be because there’s something wrong with Aboriginal culture. She talked about the need for adaptive change, the kind of change that requires a change of perspective rather than a technological fix.

The questions were all excellent. Perhaps for the first time in my life I heard a very long question that was neither primarily self-promoting nor bizarrely tangential to the topic in hand. The questioner spoke of the problematic nature of the phrase ‘white guilt’ both because non-Indigenous Australia is very diverse, and ‘white’ covers only part of it, because the ‘we’ who actually experience guilt, as opposed to, say, denial, is very hard to define (is it only liberals?), and because guilt is a pretty dead-end notion anyway. These were interesting issues to raise, and, as Sarah Maddison acknowledged, weren’t going to be resolved in an hour before dinner on a Friday night.

No doubt I’ll blog about this again when I read the book.